By Andrew Cremata
When the big king salmon hit my lure, it was only 15 feet away from the sandy river bank on which I stood. In the crystal clear water of the East Alsek River, the chrome flanks of the chinook were on full display.
Instead of taking off immediately, the confused salmon twisted back and forth in an effort to ascertain the nature of its newfound predicament. In the meantime, I got a good look at the fish and it was every bit of 42 inches, easily topping 30 pounds.
In anticipation of the inevitable run, I checked my reel’s drag to make sure it could handle the coming burst of speed without putting too much strain on the 12-pound monofilament line. Within the moment when the big king fully realized the stakes, it took off at full speed. Eighty yards of line emptied from the spool in only a few seconds. Nearing the opposite side of the riverbank, the salmon had no other choice than to turn parallel to the bank. All I could do was hold on for dear life.
I intermittently began making up ground but every gain seemed to reinvigorate the salmon. The stalemate between man and fish went on for another couple minutes before the line suddenly went limp. Somehow, the treble hook had worked its way free from the king’s mouth. I reeled it back in the rest of the way and immediately began casting again, hoping another bite would soon come.
Toward the beginning of the fight, as the king was ripping through the water like a torpedo, my fishing rod distended into an unnatural arch. It occurred to me that it had been a long time since I tangled with a fish that posed any real challenge.
The memory was still vivid. It was mid-June in 2019, almost exactly two years ago to the day, fishing in Marsh Lake in the Yukon Territory. I had just cast a plastic jerkbait behind my canoe when all hell broke loose and a massive trout attacked the lure before I could engage my reel.
The hefty laker weighed in at nearly 18 pounds and was promptly released in compliance with the Yukon fishing regulations. Had the fish been legal to keep, it would have been destined for the grill in only a few short hours.
The closure of the Canadian border throughout the pandemic put a significant damper on my chances of catching big fish. Alaska Fish & Game prohibits keeping any king salmon around Skagway, so why even bother trying? Injuring protected fish makes little sense and I still have to spend money on a burger or some to-go Thai food.
These were the reasons I was 100 miles west of Skagway fishing less than a 100 yards from the loud crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. The epic flight to a bona fide middle-of-nowhere traced a path over endless jagged mountain peaks where mountain goats stood in defiance of gravity and physics. Between the mountains, glaciers spilled out in every direction, some with no end in sight, their surfaces speckled with melt ponds sporting icy blue hues utterly indescribable with mere words.
From our plane’s descent above the Grand Pacific Glacier toward the beach where we would eventually settle was an endless stand of trees where a family of moose grazed silently in a muskeg clearing. As the plane banked to land, I saw a massive dark form emerge from the cresting waves in the open ocean and imagined it was some primordial Leviathan angered that some strange flying machine dared interrupt its ancient slumber.
But it was probably a whale.
Somewhere between the memory of catching large fish and the reality of losing another, a second king salmon inhaled my lure. While it wasn’t as big as the previous fish, it was large enough to warrant real excitement.
The chinook made a short initial run before violently leaping out of the river. As it shook its body in an effort to throw the hook, droplets of water sparkled in the late-afternoon sunlight. While the first king was all brute strength, the second put on a show by thrashing at the surface and jumping repeatedly.
After losing the stamina to jump, the fish stubbornly refused multiple efforts to drag it onto land. As soon as my fishing partner’s hand reached out to grab the leader, it would turn and make another short run just out of reach. Obviously, this was a fish with excellent eyesight and a healthy fear of shore-dwelling primates.
Eventually, the hard-fighting king ran out of steam and the fight came to an end. My buddy managed to get a hold of the salmon and, weighing in around 18 pounds, there would be plenty of fresh meat for the grill.
Catching fish is fun but catching big fish is more fun. Any angler that says any different either isn’t being honest with themselves or they haven’t ever caught a true lunker.
Even though the Canadian border remains closed, we are still only a plane ride away from such an incredible Alaskan opportunity.
And the ride to get to the fishing grounds isn’t so bad either.